Today we mark the 240th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We’ll enjoy picnics and parades, burgers and dogs, and cap the day by watching towering fireworks displays. All well and good. But it should also serve—as no other national holiday does—as a time to take stock and reflect on our nation.
I say “anniversary” rather than “birthday” because while our nation can be said to have been conceived—or perhaps given birth—in 1776, it didn’t achieve nationhood until the adoption of the Constitution and the inauguration of George Washington, the convening of the First Congress, and the seating of the Supreme Court. These institutions of government, which formed the character of our nation as a polity, created these United States of America. (We would the become The United States of America until we passed through the crucible of the Civil War). Now is a crucial time to reflect on the status of this project.
Today we have a carbuncle on the surface of our body politic. Large, red, and ugly, we hope that it may go away with limited treatment and minimal interference to our politics and life as usual. But this is a Pollyannaish view because the carbuncle—or perhaps “bubo” is a better metaphor—represents an underlying systemic infection that threatens the whole of the body politic. Continued vigilance and treatment are imperative.
But this is a holiday, and my personal habit is to reflect on some work of American history or political thought. To this end, I’ll continue my way through The Federalist, the collective effort of Madison, Hamilton, and Jay.
Some see this document as a mere antiquary of 18th-century political thought, but it remains a vital and penetrating work of political thought and government design. The insights and warnings found in The Federalist remain pertinent today. I’ll leave with one small thought from Federalist No. 1:
[A] dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidden appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.
Spend a little time this holiday pondering these words.